EPA official: Ditch Kent dam

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Bob Wysenski of the Ohio EPA, suggestion local officals remove some of the four dams along the streach of the Cuyahoga River running through Kent, Cuyahoga Falls and Munroe Falls this week at a meeting of the Northeast Ohio Four County Regional Planning and Development Organization.

Wysenski pointed out the EPA does not have the authority to mandate removal of the dams, and those decisions would have to be made by the entities that own them. But Chris Smeiles, chairman of NEFCO and a Kent resident, said he is angered even by the suggestion.

"The Kent falls are historically a major part of downtown Kent," he said. "To even discuss this issue is alarming."

NEFCO was discussing Akron's proposal to take more water from Lake Rockwell in Franklin Township and Streetsboro. The lake is Akron's main water supply.

The water diversion, which critics argue would result in less water flowing in the part of the Cuyahoga River which runs through Kent, must be approved by all the governors of Great Lakes states. Last week, Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge became the sixth governor to approve the diversion, making Michigan Gov. John Engler the lone holdout.

Michigan officials have been discussing the diversion with Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office, said Richard Bartz of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources's division of water. He said he did not know how long it might take Michigan to make its decision.

But in anticipation of that approval, Wysenski has been holding meetings with Akron officials to ensure a minimum amount of water flows over the Lake Rockwell dam into the Cuyahoga River in Kent. Environmentalists have long blamed Akron's use of the water in Lake Rockwell for the low flow in the river, which leads to lower dissolved oxygen levels and endangers fish and aquatic life.

Wysenski said in addition to ensuring more water flows from Lake Rockwell, local communities might want to consider taking out some of the four dams in the 12-to-15-mile stretch of the "middle Cuyahoga," which includes Kent, Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls, in order to bring that part of the river in attainment with the clean water act.

Smeiles said he is he is sure officials in Kent and Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls would join him in opposing such a move.

"Time is of the essence for these local communities to mobilize," he said.

But Wysenski said Friday removing the dams might be an option for local communities to ensure they have a "nice healthy stream" to fish in. He pointed out that historically, the nation's fish population suffered a major hit when the mills were developed along the rivers.

Eliminating the dams would do away with the problem of stagnating waters collecting behind the dams, he said, which in turn would improve oxygen levels and help fish breathe.

"We're really asking about putting the river back in its natural state," he said.

The Kent dam was originally put in place to facilitate canal transportation along the river. It also was the site of a number of mills along the river, which depended on the river for water power.

Howard Boyle, president of the Kent Historical Society, said the original dam was destroyed by a flood in 1913 and rebuilt through a community effort because of its importance to the town.

The mills were once so important to Kent that the town was once named Franklin Mills. Boyle added that history books carry photos of ornately dressed people skating near the dam.

"The community had a lot of pride in the dam," he said.

Today, the mills are gone, which is why Wysenski argues that many local communities no longer need so many dams along their rivers. But local officials argue that the dams now serve a different purpose, one that adds to the beauty and charm of their communities and draws people downtown.

"The dam adds to the charm of downtown, especially with River Edge Park," Boyle said. "It's very, very beautiful to look at the waterfall and see its urban setting _ the railroad tracks, the old train station, the Williams Brothers mill. It's really very nice, especially with the change of seasons."

Parks and Recreation Director also said he was concerned about the effect the loss of the dam might have on Riveredge park, where there is a walkway along the river and an observation deck so people can view the waterfall.

"I think it would be terrible from an aesthetic standpoint," he said. "The moving water over the dam is really relaxing. It's a nice place for people to sit there and meditate. I think it would have a real detrimental impact and remove a big piece of Kent's history."

It is not known yet whether the release of more water over the Lake Rockwell dam will be enough to bring the river in attainment with clean water standards. Wysenski said officials might have a better idea in March, when results of a mathematical model should be available. The model, he said, is a tool being used to predict how the river would react to changes.

Wysenski said although the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers would have to sign off on the addition or removal of any dams in the river, the EPA could not mandate such a move. Those efforts would have to be started by whoever owns the dams. But the EPA could offer grant money as an incentive.

He also acknowledged there would be arguments to keep the dams because of their aesthetic value, but said it's one thing communities ought to consider.

"A middle Cuyahoga stakeholders group would be the perfect group to discuss something like this," he said. "We're working real diligently with Akron, but if they address the dam situation it would also be a great help to water quality."

Smeiles said he recently brought Wysenski's statements to the attention of Portage County Commissioners, who were very concerned about the possibility of losing the dam and directed the Portage County Prosecutor's office to look into "whatever legal remedies might be available to us."

"The commissioners agreed immediate action is needed," he said.

Bartz said the elimination of the dams is just one option that's being considered to improve river flow. Other options are being considered, he noted, including aeration of the water behind the dam.

"I think the dams were brought up as one example of what could be done," he said.

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